As more people experiencing homelessness seek shelter in transit facilities, transit agencies are looking for ways to offer assistance and reduce interactions with law enforcement.
"America’s transit systems — public spaces with long operating hours and enclosed spaces offering more safety than the streets — have long been de facto shelters for the nation’s homeless population," write Michael Gold and Erin Woo. "For much of that time, transit agencies have turned to the police to address complaints by penalizing and ejecting those taking refuge on trains, subways and buses."
As Gold and Woo write, "The urgency for new solutions has deepened during the coronavirus pandemic, which has worsened homelessness and left transit systems struggling to win back riders who fled."
In New York City, "[Mayor] Adams’s plan deploys police officers and mental-health workers underground to remove people who shelter on the subway. He has said the focus is on connecting people to housing, health services and counseling, not on aggressive policing." But "Many advocates are skeptical, arguing that Mr. Adams’s plan relies heavily on police intervention and enforcement of the subway’s code of conduct, which has rules targeting homeless people."
The article outlines efforts by transit agencies in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles to develop outreach programs and minimize interaction between law enforcement and unhoused people. "In 2018, [the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority] — which before the pandemic averaged about a million trips per day across buses, subways, trolleys and regional rail — turned over an 11,000-square-foot space in a concourse below the station to Project HOME, a nonprofit that helps homeless people." To assist those sheltering in SEPTA facilities, "The group converted the space to a drop-in center that offers temporary shelter, medical services, access to restrooms and laundry and help finding housing." The agency is considering adding similar facilities to other stations.
The Philadelphia program is not without its challenges. "Workers also still struggle to find acceptable shelter for many who need it. And fewer than 50 percent of those contacted by outreach workers agree to accept services, [SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III] said." Advocates hope cities will invest more in human-centered approaches that prioritize outreach and supportive services.
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